Cross Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels with Lauren Beukes and add a hefty dose from an episode of Life on Mars and you have Poison City, Paul Crilley‘s first novel for adults (review copy from publishers Hodderscape). This is a supernatural thriller set in South Africa. It lacks the polite Englishness of the Folly, and is the better for it.
Gideon Tau (known almost universally as London) is a detective in South Africa’s Delphic Division, the branch of the police that deals with supernatural related crime. Like all of Delphic Division, Tau is a magic practitioner, teamed up with a spirit guide. In his case, a foul-mouthed, perpetually drunk dog. Tau also has personal tragedy shading his past. His daughter disappeared, believed murdered, several years previously, which led to the break up of his marriage. That murder remains unsolved and Tau investigates it on the side. Poison City opens with the murder of a low-ranking vampire, which Tau and his boss Armitage start to investigate. Almost inevitably, the perpetrator was seen at the scene of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter and the investigation starts to uncover deep corruption at the heart of South African society.
Crilley draws on a rich seam of African religions, mythology and history to populate his contemporary South Africa. This moves it far beyond the rather tired elves, vampires and werewolves of most urban fantasy, giving Poison City a real richness and vibrancy that other similar works lack. The themes of corruption within the ruling classes, misuse and exploitation of power, and issues of personal responsibility have a real relevance to contemporary South Africa. Sin eaters play a huge part in the book: individuals who will – for a price – take on the burden of another person’s actions. This creates a group of people willing to transgress knowing they will carry no responsibility or memory of that act.
The characterisation is particularly strong. Tau convinces as a man wrestling with the loss of a beloved child and the break up of his marriage. He is increasingly alienated from society and his jaded attitude drives many of his actions. His boss Armitage is a refreshingly no-nonsense female cop who is clearly highly competent.
Poison City is a polished, slick thriller that delivers some genuine shocks and chills, as well as offering some thoughtful reflections on the society in which it’s set. It’s the first in a series, and I can’t wait for the sequels.
Goodreads rating: 4*